Attorneys are answering the call from more than 84,000 Americans who have signed a petition demanding that public schools in the United States stop forcing Buddhist meditation practices such as mindfulness on students in violation of their religious liberty.

According to the American Center for Law and Justice (ACLJ), whose attorneys are spearheading this effort, public schools in several states have been incorporating Buddhist meditation practices into the classroom and offering little, if any, options for students to opt out.

“Indoctrinating young kids in public schools with Buddhist meditation is outright unconstitutional,” the petition reads. “Some students are required to participate in as many as three meditation sessions each school day. If they refuse, kids are forced to sit outside the classroom, like a punishment.”

The ACLJ became involved after concerned parents from more than a dozen states contacted them about the blatant Buddhist practices that were being taught to their children under the guise of programs to help improve grades and concentration. These programs go by catchy names such as MindUp, Inner Explorer, Calm Classroom and Mindful Schools. Some students are required to participate in multiple meditation or mindfulness sessions each school day that can last as long as 15 minutes. Audio recordings encourage children to participate in distinctly Buddhist practices such as emptying their minds and letting their thoughts float away on a cloud.

“Encouraging students to merely ‘watch’ emotions and thoughts as ‘they float by’ is rooted in the principle that good and bad exist only in the mind, which is another dangerous idea in Buddhist meditation that permeates mindfulness practices,” writes ACLJ assistant counsel Christina Stierhoff.

“Instead of encouraging children to address the confusion they feel when a ‘bad thought’ enters their heads, mindfulness encourages them to ignore it. Viewing all thoughts as neutral eliminates the idea that thoughts and actions can be objectively right and wrong. Over time, bad thoughts left unaddressed lead to bad actions.”

The programs are frequently presented as secular and as having no ties to Buddhism, but the evidence defies this claim.

For example, the pioneer of modern mindfulness, Jon Kabat-Zinn, whose Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction (MBSR) program is the basis for so many of these school programs, admits that he sought to hide its Buddhist roots for fear that the public would otherwise reject it. To avoid this, he replaced obvious Buddhist nomenclature for a more secular-sounding language, thus turning his program into a kind of “stealth Buddhism.”

The MindUp school program, which is being promoted by actress and professed Buddhist, Goldie Hawn, is the perfect example of how this same tactic is being used in school programs which replace words such as “Buddhism” and “meditation” with “neuroscience” and “Core Practice.” Hawn admits that she aims to bring Buddhist contemplative practices into schools but changes the language in order to get around those who would balk at its religious foundation.

This desire to hide the true nature of the content is evidenced by the fact that since the ACLJ has begun to research the issue, some of the curriculum providers are trying to sanitize their websites and remove all links to Buddhism.

"What we’ve seen over last six months is that at least two of these programs have been scrubbing from their website any references that might tie the organization and its program to Buddhism. For example, any training in MSBR or to Kabat-Zinn and other information mentioning Buddhism have been removed. Similarly, certain instructions or ideas contained within audios such as one’s connection to the universe have been removed,” said Abigail Southerland, ACLJ Senior Litigation Counsel, who is acting as senior attorney on this emerging issue. “They are intentionally trying to strip and/or hide the evidence that connects these programs to Buddhism.”  

Even though changing the words doesn’t change the meaning and practice of mindfulness, these stealth tactics have been very successful.

According to research done by Candy Gunther Brown, Ph.D., a Harvard-educated Professor of Religious Studies at Indiana University, in spite of the so-called “separation of church and state” that has found Christianity largely stripped out of schools, mindfulness is becoming increasingly prevalent.

“Among children ages 4-17, 5.4% are learning mindfulness, which amounts to several million children,” Dr. Brown said. “Not all children are learning mindfulness in school, but between the two largest programs – Mindfulness Schools and MindUp - as of 2018, they both claim to have reached 9 million children globally.”

One of the main arguments of proponents of these school programs is that spirituality is different from religion and because Buddhism lacks a deity, it’s not really a religion.

“Courts and scholars alike have classified Buddhism as a religion and for good reason – you don’t have to have a deity in order for something to be a religion,” Dr. Brown said.

She also questions the ability for participants and their parents to give fully informed consent to programs that are being deliberately misrepresented.

“When you call a program secular and are not transparent about the religious connections, that’s not offering an opportunity for informed consent,” she said.

Having no good opt-out is another ethical concern.

“Children who are uncomfortable with these mindfulness practices feel forced to participate because they’re mandated and implemented in every classroom throughout the day and are an integral part of the daily curriculum,” Southerland said.

For example, in one English class students were participating in 80 minutes of mindfulness and coloring sessions where children colored their own mandalas.

After sending multiple legal demand letters to schools, the ACLJ is reporting positive changes such as how some teachers in Colorado have refused to teach a program known as Inner Explorer after hearing about its Buddhist content. Teachers in other states have followed suit and are reaching out to the ACLJ with concerns about their school districts’ plans to implement the programs.

Even though one program, Inner Explorer, agreed to remove the “obvious” religious language from the program, this change has no impact on the Buddhist concepts that are embedded in these curriculums.

“By allowing inherently religious programs, like Inner Explorer, into the classroom, public schools are promoting a religion in violation of the Establishment Clause of the Constitution,” Stierhoff writes.

“Parents need to be assured that they can trust public school systems to properly educate their children, not indoctrinate them.”